How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)
★★ / ★★★★
The Grinch (Jim Carrey) was born in Whoville, a place where everyone loved Christmas, but he ran away to live at Mt. Crumpet because he was bullied as a child for looking different. He grew up to hate Christmas and was absolutely willing to do anything to ruin Whoville’s good cheer. When a little girl (Taylor Momsen), doubtful of what Christmas was supposed to be about, suggested that the residents gave Grinch a chance to be a part of them, it just might be the perfect opportunity for him to ruin Christmas once and for all. Based on Dr. Seuss’ book and directed by Ron Howard, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” was harmless, silly, and colorful which almost made it a perfect movie to watch around Christmastime. I just wished its heart was the priority instead of the comedy. Admittedly, despite the many slapstick scenes that made no sense whatsoever yet without a doubt would appeal to younger children, I did laugh at Carrey’s manic energy and deranged facial expressions. I smiled at the small chaos he created like giving little girls a saw and encouraged them to run around with it. I especially loved it when the filmmakers were brave enough to allow the mean, green Grinch to look into camera and comment on things like kids being desensitized by movies and television nowadays and the dangers of stress-eating. The latter was especially hilarious because most of us are guilty of it during the holidays. The Grinch mentioned the innate commercialism of the holiday as well. Some may perceive it as distracting but since he was a cynic, I thought it was appropriate for his character. While it was amusing because of Carrey essentially carrying the picture, I yearned for more moving moments. A bit of silence would have gone a long way. Naturally, the Grinch was a lonely creature. Although the material provided background information about why he decided to live by himself, it felt too superficial. I kept waiting for the film to explore the Grinch’s feelings of abandonment at the gut level. Furthermore, didn’t his parents look for him after he ran off into the snowy mountains? How did he meet his adorable dog? There were some unanswered questions that should have been answered or at least acknowledged. After all, without really understanding the misunderstood creature, how could we buy into his eventual change of heart? We wouldn’t just love him because he decided to return the toys he stole in the first place. “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” didn’t quite steal my heart but it managed to entertain. Hats off to Carrey for shining through the green costume and make-up.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Will (James Franco) was a brilliant scientist on the brink of discovering the cure for Alzheimer’s Disease. The ALZ-112 drug, which boosted brain function, worked on apes, but it needed to be tested on humans before commercialization. When one of the apes broke out of its cage and destroyed everything in its path, the investors expressed disapproval in using humans as test subjects. As a result, Will’s boss (David Oyelowo) ordered all of the experimental apes’ extermination and single-handedly shut down Will’s research. However, Will, despite his initial reluctance, took home a baby ape from the lab and raised it like a child. “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” written by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, was an exciting cautionary tale about ethics, or lack thereof, in terms of scientific advancements and humans’ relationship with our direct descendants. The first half was strong and unexpected. For a movie about an uprising of apes, I didn’t think it would focus on personal issues. It worked because it defined Will as more than a scientist. He was a father to Caesar (Andy Serkis), the young ape he hook home, and a son to his father (John Lithgow) who was inflicted with dementia. Later, when Caesar led his army of apes, strangely, I saw Will in his eyes, the strength, courage and determination within, a look similar in the way Will expressed concern toward his father when a specific symptom surfaced, a suggestion that his condition had turned for the worse. Unfortunately, the latter half wasn’t as strong. While it was necessary that Caesar eventually got to be with his own kind and began to care more about them than people, it got redundant. The workers in the wildlife rescue center, like John (Brian Cox) and Dodge (Tom Felton), were cruel and abusive. They pushed, kicked, and tasered the animals while deriving pleasure from it. Showing us the same act over and over again was counterproductive. I would rather have watched more scenes of the way Caesar dealt with abandonment. When the material turned inwards, whether it be Will or Caesar, what was at stake came into focus. The action scenes, like the chaos in the Golden Gate Bridge, was nicely handled by the director. There wasn’t much gore and no limb was torn apart, but the fear was palpable. The way the San Franciscans ran from one end of the bridge toward the other looked like they were running from Godzilla instead of a bunch of apes. However, there was one strand that felt out of place, almost underwritten. One of the scientists (Tyler Labine) was exposed to a chemical agent, a gaseous form of ALZ-112, which led to his death. That part of the story needed about two more scenes to explain its significance. Those who watched Franklin J. Schaffner’s “Planet of the Apes” could probably grasp at its implications but those who had not could end up confused. Directed by Rupert Wyatt, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” used special and visual effects to enhance the story and deliver good-looking action sequences, evidence that the two needn’t and shouldn’t be mutually exclusive to pull off a solid popcorn entertainment.
James and the Giant Peach (1996)
★★★ / ★★★★
James (Paul Terry) lived with his egocentric aunts (Joanna Lumley, Miriam Margolyes) ever since his parents died in a car accident. His guardians were very abusive, often sending him off to clean up after them, calling him worthless, teasing him about being an orphan and not having friends, and leaving him off to feed on scraps from the garbage. But when an old man (Pete Postlethwaite) gave James some magical green “crocodile tongues,” the boy’s life had a chance to finally change for the better. But first he had to escape the horrible household, cross the Atlantic Ocean, and make his way to New York City. Adapted from Roald Dahl’s story, “James and the Giant Peach” worked mainly for children but it had enough darkness to keep the older audiences engaged. While the film was full of energy, especially the first-rate stop-motion animation scenes with the eccentric bugs (Susan Sarandon as Miss Spider, David Thewlis as Earthworm, Simon Callow as Grasshopper, Richard Dreyfuss as Centipede, and Jane Leeves as Ms. Ladybug), the scenes when James had to deal with the feelings of abandonment due to the death of his parents and his yearning to be free from an abusive household carried a certain level of gravity. It was touching, sometimes a bit melodramatic, but we could not help but root for James because a child should not had to endure so much. However, admittedly, I enjoyed the picture more when I was a kid. While some of the jokes were still amusing, I wished the story had focused more about James instead of the bugs. After all, it was supposed to be about James learning to make new friends, despite how strange they may have been, after a considerable amount of time in isolation. The stop-motion animation and character development should have formed a kind of synergy instead of one getting in the way of another. Nevertheless, when I look at the big picture and its possible impact on its intended audiences, the movie was enjoyable because its high level of creativity in terms of its visual puns and wordplay. Directed by Henry Selick, “James and the Giant Peach” offered a strange universe with creepy images and eerie atmosphere but it wore its heart on its sleeve so kids should not be disturbed by its darker undertones. Younger kids may question their parents about death but I do not think it is a subject that parents should shy away from because it is a natural part of life. In fact, tackling the subject should further highlight the fact that, like the giant peach, life is indeed quite magical.
The Butcher Boy (1997)
★★★ / ★★★★
Francie (Eamonn Owens), a boy with a very active imagination, values two things in life: his parents (Stephen Rea and Aisling O’Sullivan, respectively) and his best friend (Alan Boyle). So when the three important figures in his life were taken away due to varying circumstances, his childhood mischief evolved into an emotional disturbance despite the people in town treating him as nicely as they could. I understand that this can be a challenging film especially to people not used to over-the-top quirkiness mixed with surreal elements. I was able to stick with the story by focusing my attention on the psychology of a child who felt abandoned and betrayed. Further, he did not have a healthy way to get rid of his negative emotions. Instead, Francie channeled his energy toward torturing a kid from the neighborhood along with his mother (Fiona Shaw), who responded by asking other guys to physically assault Francie. The town eventually unable to deal with Francie’s indiscretions, he was sent away for extended periods of time. In such institutions, he failed to face his problems because he had no one to talk to and explain why what he did was wrong. The positive feedback of violence and emotional disturbance pushed the kid slowly toward a mental breakdown. Although the events that were happening on screen were wrapped in comedic elements, I thought it was really sad in its core because nobody understood how to deal with the tragic main character in a healthy way. The theme of the picture was abandonment which culminated when Francie returned from boarding school but his best friend was no longer his best friend. The schism in their relationship was especially painful to watch because earlier in the movie we had a chance to see them so close. They even had a pact to become “blood brothers” for the rest of their lives. The fear and disappointment in the children’s eyes (especially Boyles’) were apparent but they wouldn’t express them to each other because they either lacked the right words to say what they really felt or one did not want to hurt the other. All of the strange images and quirkiness aside, I thought the picture had a clear emotional resonance and I empathized with the main character throughout even though I did not necessarily agree with his choices. Based on the novel by Pat McCabe and astutely directed by Neil Jordan, “The Butcher Boy” was essentially about a childhood gone wrong because the child lacked guidance about life’s contradictions and challenges. Watching it was highly rewarding because its humanity was actually highlighted and not dimmed by dark comedy.
I Can Do Bad All by Myself (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Tyler Perry, “I Can Do Bad All by Myself” stars Taraji P. Henson as a nightclub singer who had to take care of her nephews (Kwesi Boakye, Frederick Siglar) and niece (Hope Olaide Wilson) when Madea (Perry) brought them to her doorstep after catching them trying to steal home appliances. Henson did not take kindly to the idea because she was so used to only thinking about herself and the current man (Brian J. White) in her life. But when a kind-hearted man (Adam Rodriguez) from Colombia arrived in her life, all her resentment and defenses slowly faded away. Upon watching the first half of this film, I was so convinced I was going to give it a recommendation because not only was it hilarious because of Madea, it had a real dramatic gravity because of the kids who were dealing with serious issues of abandonment. I didn’t mind the melodrama and the clichés because the story kept moving forward. However, the second half had a very noticable change of momentum to the point where I felt like I was attending church (I haven’t been to church in years but it’s fresh in my mind how tedious and hypocritical it is) because of all the sermons and singing. I mean, I understand that music and religion were important to the characters but I constantly took into consideration the possibility that Perry was taking the easy way out both as a writer and director. There were more subtle ways for his characters to realize the errors of their ways; in reality, it’s mostly about the little things we notice, such as the silences while we’re doing something important, that eventually force us to wake up. It’s not necessarily about the big musical numbers and dropping in at the perfect moments of a sermon. So I found that a bit disturbing because of its very contrived nature. I do have to credit Wilson as the sister who was so used to having to put up an angry front because she essentially had to be a mother. The way she delivered her lines broke my heart because I’ve known people like her growing up. And, to be honest, many people like her character end up in terrible situations. Unlike this picture, Wilson knows how to be subtle yet still go for the jugular when necessary. I’m interested with what project she’s going to tackle next. “I Can Do Bad All by Myself” is not a bad film. It just needed to take more risks and not get too caught up on the message it wanted to get across to the point where it becomes heavy-handed. Still, it’s worth watching because of Madea’s incredibly hilarious grab bag of biblical stories alone.
Otto; or, Up With Dead People (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
Bruce La Bruce’s movie about a zombie named Otto (Jey Crisfar) was not something I expected. I thought it would be hybrid of horror and drama because I was aware that Otto was an unhappy undead who couldn’t tap into the memories he collected back when he was alive. I liked the style of this picture: some were in black and white, some were in color, other aspects were told in a linear manner, while some were in split-screen. All those different techniques worked for me because it kept me interested and sometimes the craft matched the lead character’s mood. The second thing I liked about this movie was that it was a movie within a movie. Otto was hired to play a zombie by an eccentric director (Katharina Klewinghaus) who wanted to comment on consumerism, intolerance (especially toward non-heterosexuals), and modernity. Even though there were times when I thought certain ideas were not explored enough, I did appreciate that I tried to achieve something. The third factor that I admired about this film was the main character. When he started to remember the memories he had with his ex-boyfriend, I questioned whether he was really dead. I thought him being a “zombie” was just a front because he would rather shut down instead of dealing with the pain of abandonment and hopelessness. I thought the whole thing was a metaphor for depression and a brilliant one at that. As the film went on, I felt as though he was becoming more alive as he realized that people did miss him and he was not insignificant. But what didn’t work for me was that the director’s ideas were so all over the place to the point where sometimes the messages contradicted each other. I also didn’t get what the connection was between sex and nudity to social contracts and the social problems. If that part had been clearer, especially since the idea took about half of the film to explain, I think this would’ve been a much stronger project. Ambitious ideas are great but one should support those ideas in a clear manner for evaluation and understanding. “Otto; or, Up With Dead People” is definitely not a commercial film because it actively challenges the conventions of storytelling. Most people would see this as pointless and meandering but I thought there was enough brain to warrant a slight recommendation. Its ability to take the zombie flicks upside down, such as the undeads’ ability to speak, think and restrain themselves from eating people, was fun to watch.
The Return (2003)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Vozvrashcheniye” or “The Return,” directed by Andrei Zvyagintsev, was about two boys’ (Ivan Dobronravov, Vladimir Garin) response and ways of coping when their father (Konstantin Lavronenko) who abandoned them twelve years ago suddenly came back. This movie really took me by surprise because I thought it was going to be more about the siblings’ relationship: the rivalry between them, their quest to find their identities and to learn how to be secure about who they were. When the father came back, I suddenly realized that the film aimed to be so much more. Although the brothers were pretty much on the same physical journey with their father to head to a place unknown to the audiences, their emotional and psychological journeys were distinct and fascinating. The older brother (Garin) accepted his fathers return while the younger brother (Dobronravov) was more reluctant and cautious. His doubt became so strong to the point where he expressed to his brother that the man who returned might not be their father–the father that they came to recognize in an old childhood photo. This alarmed me because I wondered if he was right. After all, that gut feeling in us is sometimes right, especially when circumstances are dire. I had to question about the father’s intentions because of the way he treated his sons. Even though they were both stubborn, if I was a father who hadn’t seen his sons in over a decade, I’d be ecstatic and be more than willing to let certain things go so that my children would be able to trust and open up to me. The way the father was so dead-on into coming to a particular place made me very suspicious and I found myself constantly evaluating the situation. The last thirty minutes was impressive. The quiet moments were so painful after certain events have unfolded. I could feel what the characters were probably feeling and known what they probably were thinking. I loved the way Zvyagintsev helmed the picture because of the fact that the movie was focused from beginning to end yet it wasn’t monotonous. In fact, it was very fluid when it comes to the emotions that it wanted to get from the viewers. I also enjoyed that the title eventually had two meanings. I will remember this Russian film for a long time, despite its minimalist dialogue, because of its haunting moral conundrums.
Momma’s Man (2008)
★ / ★★★★
Have you ever seen a movie where fifteen minutes into it you have a feeling it’s going to be a disaster but you decide to sit through it, hoping that it will get better or maybe even redeem itself but ultimately doesn’t? “Momma’s Man,” written and directed by Azazel Jacobs, is that kind of movie. It tells the story of a man (Matt Boren) who initially visits his parents (Ken Jacobs and Flo Jacobs–the director’s real-life parents) for a few days but then decides he wants to say for a longer period of time as he totally abandons wife and child. He comes up with so many ways to stay such as lying to people about the health of his mother, lying to his parents about his wife cheating on him and even deliberately falling down the stairs hoping to break his bones. It’s supposed to be funny but I didn’t find anything amusing about it because I seriously thought that this man had a psychological disorder. And to me, people with psychological disorders are not to be poked fun of unless it’s done in a bona fide manner like in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” In here, the character is so unlikeable because he fails to see how his actions cause a ripple effect to the lives around him. His parents are very worried about his mental state and his wife has no idea why he refuses to come back. I didn’t like the parents either. I felt like they have no real authority over their son: the mother is an enabler, the father is emotionally distant. No wonder their son wants to relive his childhood–he wasn’t brought up in a healthy way. I don’t want to delve into Freudian mechanics but the main character is literally fixated on everything about his younger years. As for the film’s tone, I found it to be really annoying. I couldn’t believe I was made to sit through bad song lyrics written by the main character back when he was a teenager or even watch him put shaving cream on his face for five minutes. I’m very familiar with independent filmmaking and I love smaller films. However, this one is just weak all across the board. The acting was painful for me to sit through, especially the mother’s, because her tone of delivery is so consistently flat. I have absolutely nothing positive to say about this picture (which is a rarity because I usually find something positive about most movies) and I urge everyone else to stay as far away as possible from this wreck. It was a waste of a hundred minutes.
Frozen River (2008)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Courtney Hunt’s screenwriter and directoral debut blew me out of the water. “Frozen River” is about a desperate mother (Melissa Leo) who tries to keep her family afloat after the father of the family leaves and takes all their money with him. Not knowing what else to do because her part-time job is not enough to keep up with the bills, Leo teams up with a Native American (Misty Upham) to smuggle immigrants into the United States for $600 per person. This movie left me so overwhelmed because it’s very efficient with its time. Each minute adds a piece of the puzzle regarding why the characters choose to do what they do. And that’s the key: The characters choose to do what they do even though they very well know that such actions are illegal, yet we still very much sympathize with them. I think that’s where Hunt’s talent comes in–she makes her character so raw to the point where I can imagine the events actually happening in real life. The acting all-around is top notch. Leo and Upham are initially pit up against each other yet they share a common bond that’s strong enough to overcome their differences. Leo definitely deserved her Oscar nomination because, right from the first frame, I sensed a certain complexity from a mother who will do anything it takes to provide for her children (Charlie McDermott, James Reilly). There’s this one scene when they have nothing else to eat other than popcorn and orange juice. It made me think that, if I were in Leo’s situation, I would also smuggle illegal immigrants despite the risks. Also, she has only a few simple dreams for her family (such as getting her children presents for Christmas and buying a new house) but she cannot quite achieve them. While she does tend to blame herself once in a while, she always decides to get up because no one else will solve her problems for her. In a nutshell, the lead character is very flawed but I could not help but admire her resolve. I was also surprised by how suspenseful it got during the smuggling scenes. There’s a lot of political elements that come into play whenever they have to escape such as the differing rules when one is in an Indian reservation. By the end, I was so emotionally drained but I still wanted the film to continue because I was curious about what would happen next to the characters. This is a superb film in every respect; it may be small in scope at first glance but it’s truly quite universal.